What is the HTC One A9?

HTC phones once had a reputation for being superb – but this feels like a long time ago now. The A9 is HTC’s attempt to recover some lost ground.

It’s best described as a mid-range _phone_ sporting a high-end design, with what on paper looks like an impressive camera. However, it's priced to compete with the likes of the Galaxy S6 – which, in the UK, is actually cheaper SIM-free at the moment.

This isn't good news for HTC. The A9 is ludicrously overpriced, suffers poor battery life, and bizarrely, the version sold in the UK and Europe is hobbled with less memory and storage than its US counterpart. Oh, and it looks like an iPhone 6S – which is just downright funny.

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HTC One A9 – Design & Features

So, has HTC copied Apple – or, as HTC recently claimed, has Apple been copying HTC for years?

Well, there's no denying that how the One A9's black-glass front tapers into the curved, grey aluminium body is pure iPhone. Even the layout of ports and buttons references the iPhone.

You could argue that the two companies have reached the same point in an obvious design evolution – but I’m not convinced. Whether this is flattery or cynical opportunism on HTC's part, this is the closest to an iPhone I've seen Android _phone_ get.

Related: Best Smartphones and Mobile Phones in 2015

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As imitations go, however, the One A9 is a fine example. It’s a beautifully made phone, and it’s only a shade taller and wider than the iPhone, so it can be used in one hand with reasonable comfort.

This makes the One A9 easy to handle – or at least it would be if it weren't so slippery. I've courted disaster several times, on one occasion only just catching the handset between my legs to avoid it smacking the ground. If there were a "Best Impression of a Bar of Soap" category in the upcoming TrustedReviews Awards, I'm certain that no-one would demand a recount.

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This is an exceptionally slim phone – too slender to accommodate HTC’s signature BoomSound speakers. Instead, the company has included a single, mono speaker on the bottom edge, which is way too easy to cover.

To HTC’s credit, however, it's still found space for a microSD slot – a handy addition now that Android M can treat microSD cards as native storage, enabling you to run apps from them.

The One A9 also features a fingerprint scanner, which is similar in shape and size to those found on Samsung’s phones. However, this one is a capacitive touch button rather than a mechanical one. It's largely reliable though, and incredibly fast – faster than even Touch ID on the iPhone 6S. That’s impressive.

Related: 10 Best Android Phones in 2015

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Not only is a fingerprint scanner more secure than a PIN or other locking mechanism, it means you'll be able to use Android Pay when it eventually launches. Finger scanners are this year's must-have feature, so it's great to see the One A9 include such a function.

HTC One A9 – Screen Quality

Speaking of great things, the A9's screen is... well it isn't quite great, but it is very good. Unusually for HTC, it's an AMOLED display. This means it produces rich, punchy colours and has outstanding contrast compared to an LCD. Blacks look truly black, something you'll enjoy most when watching videos.

Its 1080p resolution – which equates to 441 pixels per inch on this 5-inch display – isn't the sharpest around, but I didn't notice any jagged edges on text or icons. Samsung's phones, such as the S6 and Note 5, remain in a different class – but the A9 is no slouch.

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There are only a few issues holding it back. One is the brightness, which is good enough but not outstanding. I didn't have any problems using the screen outdoors – but then it's October, and I live in London, so the sun is a rare visitor.

The other is that whites can appear rather subdued and gloomy. The difference between the A9 and the iPhone 6S's dazzling whites is stark. Even the Nexus 5X looks better than the A9 in this respect. Nevertheless, it's a tolerable weakness.

HTC One A9 – Software & Performance

This is one of the first Android phones to ship with Android Marshmallow, which is great news. It’s one of the best Android updates ever released. Features such as Google Now on Tap and Doze, which significantly reduces battery drain on standby, are just two of the brilliant new additions.

HTC’s Sense UI skin is less impressive. I can’t think of a single feature it adds that I’d miss if I were using vanilla Android – or another mobile OS for that matter. The smart homescreen folder, which switches automatically to display apps based on your location, is ruined by the non-removable "Suggestions" folder that shows apps that HTC thinks you'd like.

BlinkFeed – which combines social and news feeds into one stream – is the one redeeming feature. But it’s hardly essential and, to my mind, much of the design in Sense UI is starting to look tired. The Google Now Launcher is the way to go here.

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On the plus side, it doesn’t impact performance unduly. The Snapdragon 617 processor isn’t the fastest by any measure, but the One A9 runs smoothly in general use. Plus, Sense UI tends to use shorter animations than vanilla Android, which often enhances the sense of speed.

However, the One A9 is rather underpowered considering it's more expensive SIM-free than the Galaxy S6, Nexus 5X, OnePlus 2 and numerous other phones. It scores only 3,097 in Geekbench 3, compared to 3,952 from the S6 (27% faster) and 3,543 from the Nexus 5X (14% faster). It’s worse still in the 3DMark Ice Storm gaming test, where the S6 is 174% faster.

This is reflected in some games. I loaded up Asphalt Overdrive – a graphically demanding racing game – and it was almost unplayable. The graphics looked great, but the frame rate was too slow to enjoy it. Games such as Sonic Dash played fine, but this isn’t a phone on which you'll be able to enjoy the most demanding titles.

HTC One A9 – Camera

Cameras have proved problematic for HTC of late. The One M9’s unit fell well below expectations, so there's a great deal riding on camera featured in the One A9. On paper it has everything it needs to succeed, including RAW support, which it does to a degree,. However, it still falls short of the standards set by the leading brands.

The basic setup sounds promising. You get a 13-megapixel back-illuminated, or BSI, sensor with an f/2.0 aperture lens. It also includes optical image stabilisation, to help shooting in low light.

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The A9 rarely has problems in good light and produces some nicely exposed shots

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Macros and portraits benefit from punchy colours and plenty of detail

In most situations it’s a fine camera. It captures plenty of detail and its native dynamic range is decent, although not outstanding. It’s fast to focus and quick between shots, too. In these respects, it’s everything a modern smartphone camera ought to be.

Below: Two shots taken with HDR using different exposure points

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There are issues, however. For whatever reason the HDR mode seems strangely subdued. I struggled to achieve good results, producing shots that were barely distinguishable from non-HDR ones. It also lacks auto HDR, a common and particularly useful feature of top-end phones.

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This flower ought to be a deep red but it appears lighter with flecks of magenta

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The camera can't cope with this bright red flower at all, so the detail is totally destroyed

Colour accuracy is best described as so-so. The One A9 seems to struggle with strong red colours, which can be seen in the images of red roses. In places, they look magenta and the colours are sometimes totally blown out.

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Some low-light shots look great

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This shot is usable, but the sky appears very noisy

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Bright street lights cause serious issues with lens flair

Low light ought to be a strength given the camera’s specs, and the One A9 does produce slightly brighter shots than the iPhone 6S in the same conditions. However, this often comes at the cost of obvious and distracting noise.

The lens also suffers significantly from flair, where bright lights distort. This is annoying if you’re shooting at night, for example, since bright street lamps can ruin practically all of your shots.

Such niggling issues would be tolerable on a genuinely mid-range phone, but the One A9 isn’t priced like a mid-range phone. Remember: you can buy a Galaxy S6 for less SIM-free in the UK and get similar deals on contract.

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The front-facing camera is better, though. It seems to work well in low light, so you can get a decent shot in most situations. It’s just a shame that the main camera is so hit and miss.

HTC One A9 – Battery Life

This hasn’t been a great year for anyone who values battery life above all else. Few phones have made great strides, and many brands have taken the decision to reduce the size of their batteries, sometimes citing fast-charging as compensation.

The One A9 has a modest 2,150mAh battery, which is tiny when you consider that the similarly sized Nexus 5X has a 2,700mAh unit. Also, did I mention that the 5X is cheaper than the One A9? You’ve got the point already, right?

I have a fairly predictable life. I leave home around 8:25am. I sit on the train to work, passing time on Twitter and Facebook, then by listening to some music for half an hour or so. I'm at my desk around an hour after have set out.

In this time, the One A9 went from 100% to 78% – a huge loss of 22%. Typically, I’d expect 12% to 15% – and that’s from an iPhone 6S, which is hardly the model for great battery life.

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An hour of Netflix over lunch drained 18% in one go, which is also significant. Thanks to Android’s new Doze feature, which optimises power use when on standby, the One A9 didn’t drop much between spells of use – but it’s difficult to get to the end of the day all the same.

This is a poor show. The A9 does indeed charge very quickly thanks to Qualcomm’s Quick Charge technology, but it’s small comfort.

HTC One A9 – Sound & Call Quality

Despite settling for a mono speaker on the One A9, it's quite a good one. The usual caveats apply: it doesn’t have much bass and it’s easy to cover when you play games. On the plus side, it’s loud, clear and doesn’t distort. Call quality is also fine on both ends.

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Should I buy the HTC One A9?

Sadly – you can do much better. Even the US version, with its more ample storage and increased RAM is a middling effort – but the handset sold in the UK is very poor value. It’s kind of astonishing you can buy a Galaxy S6 for less SIM-free in the UK.

In fact, there are numerous cheaper phones, including the Nexus 5X, that are better choices than the One A9. I’d even consider the Moto X Play ahead of it, mainly because of its great battery life.

Bottom line: the A9 is a pretty phone, but in a deeply superficial way.

Verdict

Overpriced and undercooked, the One A9 isn’t going to propel HTC back where it wants to be.

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